It's only appropriate that John Eklund would be a house rep for a trio of university presses—Harvard, Yale, and MIT—sharing a sales force and a warehouse to collectively sell and distribute their separate lists. Eklund, 59, this year's PW Rep of the Year, is as collegial as they come, a team player reluctant to toot his own horn and quick to give credit where credit is due. Noting that behind every good sales rep toil the "unsung heroes" in the back-office, Eklund insists that the Harvard/Yale/MIT warehouse employees make his job "so easy" that "they co-own Rep of the Year." Last month, when notified that he was a Rep finalist, Eklund requested that the judges consider him only in tandem with his fellow Harvard/Yale/MIT house reps, Adena Siegel and Patricia Nelson.
"My understanding of what it means to be a rep is a function of my relationship with these two incredible book women," he wrote. "Please consider our rep force as one." Siegel and Nelson readily concur with Eklund that, in Nelson's words, they're a "very special team," with a rock-solid collaborative ethos. Siegel is adamant, though: "This is John's award. He earned it."
The booksellers who nominated Eklund certainly think so. Lucy Kogler at Buffalo's Talking Leaves Books describes him as "one of the most conscientious, kind, knowledgeable, and dedicated reps," who is "worthy of any and every possible award for his stellar dedication to his accounts." Cathy Langer at Denver's Tattered Cover Bookstore calls him "the best kind of rep, a bookseller in a rep's hat," who "helps us look like we know what we are doing." Jonathon Welch, Talking Leaves' co-owner, who jokes that he wants "to be like Eklund when I grow up," declares that he not only deserves Rep of the Year, but "he should be given a special medal just for the ground he covers."
Welch isn't kidding. Based in Milwaukee, Eklund covers a territory stretching over the northern tier of the U.S. in both directions. It's almost 3,000 miles, from the Pacific Northwest to upstate New York, and south through the nation's midsection, including St. Louis and Louisville, Ky. Managing such a huge and diverse territory is a heroic feat in which the otherwise modest Eklund revels.
Calling it his "proudest achievement of the last decade," Eklund boasts, "When Powell's in Portland [Ore.] found out their rep was going to be based in Wisconsin, they didn't like it. And I won them over. I really worked at knowing the city, learning the stores, learning the market. It was kind of a dare."
Eklund's claim of having to earn the respect of Powell's book buyers and succeeding was confirmed by purchasing supervisor Gerry Donaghy. He describes Eklund as "strategic" and "very sensitive" to the environment, both inside and outside Powell's: "He's the kind of person who's in Portland for a few days and is soon giving tourists directions."
Now that Harvard/Yale/MIT's commissioned Canadian rep has retired, the three house reps are reconfiguring their territories to cover Canadian accounts. Nelson, who is based in Albuquerque, N.Mex., is taking on the Pacific Northwest and Colorado. Siegel, who works out of Connecticut, is taking upstate New York and Pittsburgh, Pa., from Eklund. His territory will now comprise the Midwest and most of Canada, from Alberta to Quebec.
As if all that roadtripping isn't enough, Eklund has maintained since January 2009 an online travel diary that's become popular with other reps and booksellers: paperoverboard.blogspot.com. There, he ruminates on where he and the book industry have been and are headed, both physically and metaphorically.
"I'm on a mission to see the bookseller-rep interface chronicled in some way, before it becomes the anachronism it's tiresomely predicted to be," he explains.
Geography doesn't matter that much to Eklund anyway. He misses his partner of 33 years, Randy Neff, a social worker, and their dog, Blake, when he's traveling. But it's really all about books. While Milwaukee has been his home for almost his entire life, spiritually he feels at home anywhere he can surround himself with books. "I've always been obsessed with books since I was a child," Eklund says, setting down a stack of books before folding his lean frame into a bistro chair at his neighborhood bookstore, Boswell Book Co. During our discussion as well as the exchanges with booksellers who stop by at various times to chat, several of these books are held up and talked up. He simply can't restrain himself from pitching books he thinks would appeal to whomever he's talking to.
The son of two factory workers, Eklund describes his childhood home as "not a book-friendly environment," with a family totally uninterested in reading. He spent his youth hanging out after school at the East Side Library or browsing the book department at Schuster's Department Store. On his eighth birthday, his aunt took him shopping at Schuster's for his first books, a "beautiful" three-volume world encyclopedia set. He still owns it.
Like many publishers' reps, including Siegel and Nelson, Eklund started off as a bookseller. He was hired by the late David Schwartz, owner of the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, in 1974, the same year he graduated from the University of Wisconsin– Milwaukee with a journalism degree. Eklund clerked at Schwartz for the next two years, before leaving town for journalism school in Madison. Dropping out of J-school a year later, Eklund found himself "at sea." After stints working at a music store, a smoking cessation clinic, and a mental health center, Eklund returned to Schwartz in 1982, where he stayed for the next 16 years, making his way up to manager and buyer.
In an odd twist of fate, Schwartz's Harvard/Yale/MIT rep at the time was Eklund's future colleague, Siegel. She claims she knew right away he'd rep books someday. She just didn't realize it'd be alongside her. "I envisioned his voice at the table," she recalls of their initial meeting. "I knew it'd be a good one."
Siegel was right. In 1998, a year after he helped open and then manage the Downer Avenue Schwartz Bookshop—purchased in 2009 and transformed into Boswell's by Daniel Goldin, whom Eklund first hired as a bookseller in 1986—Eklund left bookselling for repping.
"There's never been a day when I've felt like working for someone else," he emphasizes. "I feel like I'm on a mission, getting these books on people's radars." He even enjoys the biannual sales conferences, which he describes as "like being in a high-level academic seminar for a week," with "genius" editors from the three presses leading the reps through the upcoming season's entire scholarly and trade catalogues, a total of 500 titles.
He acknowledges some of the more esoteric titles can be tough sells to the trade. His strategy is to work with buyers to determine if there is a customer for each book he thinks would fit into that particular store's inventory and, if so, who that customer might be. "A lot of the books are interdisciplinary, not easily summarized in a little sentence," he notes. "I try to give a little story about each book for the bookseller to take to the customer.
"It makes me intensely proud to be associated with books that are big-problem, big-issue, long-term," Eklund declares. "It boggles my mind when an editor will come in and say, ‘We signed this book in 1964 and the author's finally come through.' They're not all chasing some trend."
Eklund prefers to focus upon the long-term, rather than fleeting trends. While acknowledging that the e-book revolution is going to be "a hassle for a while" for the industry, he's convinced that booksellers will prevail if they specialize, "selling what they are committed to, are passionate about, and know most about." They can't, he says, compete inventory-wise with Amazon.
"Having been in the book business this long, there's been so many ‘death of the book' moments," he points out. "Remember when CDs were going to destroy books?"
Gesturing toward Boswell's bustling sales floor, Eklund predicts, "If we walk in here 10 years from now, I bet it'll be essentially the same kind of store. Too many people love books as objects. I can't imagine that's going to go away."